For those of you that read mxdwn avidly, you’ve most likely noticed that we generally don’t cover classical or orchestral music on the site. Certainly we’ve covered plenty of bands, shows and albums where an orchestra (or at least a portion of one) was present, but generally speaking we’ve always veered away from purely symphonic fare. No, it isn’t based on any myopic age discrimination-based rhetoric that classical music is a genre for old folks. The simple truth is it’s a genre far too vast and complex to cover without deep knowledge of what makes the style great. We don’t believe in covering something on mxdwn, unless we can do it justice on par with its own quality. Classical is a world of composers and nearly ancient traditions, one steeped in established mountains of musical majesty. We think The Beatles were a shrine of songcraft that are now nearly five decades old. That barely compares to masterworks set practically in stone by Mozart over two hundred years ago. Tonight, you’ll excuse us as we do our best to illuminate just how wonderful it is to hear Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conduct the Los Angeles Philarmonic Orchestra in a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece The Rite of Spring.
The evening was divided into two parts, the first of which, largely a well-timed backdrop for expert violin soloist Augustin Hadelich. Hadelich is a nimble violinist, playing unending solos of immense difficulty. The backdrop for Hadelich tonight is Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, where it seems tailor made for a soloist of such astounding skill. Through massive sections of “Canzonetta: Andante” the orchestra only punctuates with music while Hadelich strums out melody after melody almost completely perfectly played. The violin may look like a tiny instrument, but Hadelich makes it appear as if the tiny fretboard has a million miles of room, executing sounds from the lowest of register all the way to the highest ping in one fluid series of notes. The set ends with “Finale: Allegro vivacissimo” which allows the rest of the orchestra to commingle with Hadelich’s playing on an even level.
After an expected intermission, and without nary a word of introduction, de Burgos and the orchestra return and start The Rite of Spring. Originally, the piece went down in infamy, as its first performances spawned a near riot between fans that were thrilled by its forward-thinking compositional structure and those utterly annoyed at how unconventional it was. Almost exactly a century later, what was once too cutting edge for its time, is now regarded as a major milestone, the bridge between the old world and the new. Igor Stravinsky’s epic piece here played like a sonic firework show, each piece adding a new layer of color and surprise.
The opening bassoon notes alone have become permanently associated with the blooming sounds of an innocent spring. Starting in that charming fashion, the piece opens in a standard enough pace, but by the time it enter is movements “Dances of the Young Girls” and “Mock Abduction,” the players have entered into a musical battle royale, staccato chord stabs laying waste to opposing brass and reed sections. Each melodic phrase interlocks with the next with hardly a millisecond changeover, like each part only had seconds to live before the torch desperately has to be passed on to the next vital segment. While more generic classical orchestration congeals as a malaise of ornate instrumentation, each portion of the orchestra here finds a place to stand out. The oboes flutter with a thick tonality, the violins shriek and stab out as if a thousand vines were reaching to ensnare everything in their path and the percussion players thunder out odd tempos that reverberate with cavernous punch. By the final two movements “Rituals of the Ancients” and “Sacrifical Dance,” the interplay has become a full-on assault, the chaotic phrasing of Part 1 turning into an utterly ominous sense of dread in part 2. It’s no wonder either. Stravinsky composed and planned this piece imagining ancient Russian folklore and envisioned its story as that of a ritual ultimately leading to a virgin sacrifice to usher in the Spring.
It’s nothing short of mind blowing to imagine Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos trying to plan and execute such a daunting piece of music, never mind each set of players preparing for each subsequent bend in the road this piece throws at you. In a pop culture-crazy world, you may not hear often about the value and inspiring skill of classical musicians, but you should. Some pieces may seem pedestrian by modern standards, but something as whimsical, moving and audacious as The Rite of Spring is not to be missed.